The sprawling NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale has a new leader and a new mission.
Once envisioned as the home of regular IndyCar series races, a first for Louisiana, the park now is looking for groups interested in renting the $75 million facility’s various driving courses and meeting spaces for corporate team-building trips, recreational outings and the like.
“There’s a lot more risk” when the success of events depends on spectators buying tickets, Frank Christian said Tuesday in his first media interview as the motorsports park’s new chief executive officer.
“Corporate, tourism and convention (customers) are all guaranteed business,” he said. “Those contracts are dealt with up-front, and those types of events have a much more measurable economic impact” than occasional races.
Having spent the past two decades running a special-events planning and catering company in San Diego, Christian, 42, said he quietly took over day-to-day control of the motorsports park from former President Kristen Ponthier Engeron at the beginning of the year.
Engeron was a former financial consultant who, like Christian, did not have a background in motorsports when she was hired in 2013 to run the park that owners Laney and Ruth Chouest opened about a year earlier.
She and the Chouests were praised after a sports marketing firm involving champion race driver Michael Andretti agreed to organize three IndyCar-sanctioned competitions at NOLA Motorsports Park from 2015 through 2017.
Jefferson Parish officials predicted the new event would become a local fixture and spur an economic boom for an area of the West Bank near the Huey P. Long Bridge that is mostly undeveloped.
Those hopes never materialized.
Attendance for the first race — held on a rainy April weekend in 2015 — was estimated at less than 10,000, well below the crowd of 80,000 that promoters projected at one point. The race organizer and a company hired to install grandstands for the event later sued park officials in federal court, saying they had not been paid in full.
Finally, in September, IndyCar revealed that the race — which had been organized with help from a $4.5 million state tourism development grant — would not return.
Engeron stopped working for NOLA Motorsports Park sometime after IndyCar nixed the Grand Prix of Louisiana. Neither the park nor Engeron would comment on the circumstances surrounding her departure. But it paved the way for Christian to assume the reins in January, after a stint as a park consultant.
Christian and the facility’s attorney, Michael Sherman, said the park is off to an encouraging start as far as realizing its new vision.
For example, an agricultural company attending a national farmers conference at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans this week will rent out some of the motorsports park for a festival. The festival will feature a miniature farm, with live animals and heavy tractors displayed a short walk from a 2.75-mile, 16-turn race course that recreational and professional drivers pay to use.
Additionally, the group Tough Mudder has agreed to hold one of its elaborate obstacle course footraces at the motorsports park, Christian and Sherman said. The 5K Color Run, in which participants are doused in paint at intervals, is scheduled for September.
Christian and Sherman said those events demonstrate the wide range of activities that the motorsports park can host on its 350 developed acres, a 20-minute drive from New Orleans’ business district.
The park also is considering building rope, zip line and all-terrain-vehicle courses on some of the remaining 400 acres of undeveloped land.
Meanwhile, Christian said he has assembled the first sales team for the facility, which he said in 2015 welcomed 100,000 total visitors, 65,000 of whom were unique.
The three-member sales unit will try to maintain relationships formed with people who already have hosted events, such as vintage vehicle races, at the park, Christian said.
It also will recruit people ready to pay to use the go-kart circuits; purchase racing- and exotic-car driving experiences; and rent out corporate meeting rooms at the park for educational or networking gatherings.
“Frank’s hiring is a testament to the focus of this business,” Sherman said Tuesday, noting that Christian oversees roughly 50 full-time employees and another 150 part-timers. “This is Day 1 of the next generation for this facility. ... This is the greatest opportunity for the continued job growth and sustainability of this place.”